Talkin’ Terrestrials with Charlie Piette

This past week I had the chance to talk trout with Wisconsin guide and spring creek wizard Charlie Piette of the Tight Lines Fly Fishing Company.  With the first few days of warm weather behind us, our talk turned to terrestrials, the who, the why, the when and the where of it.

MC: Maybe we can start by defining that term: “terrestrial.” What insects do you put in that category?

CP: When we say ‘terrestrial’ we’re talking about anything not water-born that comes to the water from the land: ants, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, caterpillars. The list goes on and on. But the most significant, from the trout angler’s point of view, would be those first four: ants, beetles, grasshoppers and crickets.

MC: And when do you and your clients typically start fishing terrestrials?

CP: Boy, it can be April. I’ve had great terrestrial fishing in April. All it takes is a few days of consistently warm sunny weather to move some ants and beetles. Most people think that terrestrial fishing is relegated to July, August and September, but you can really do it–and do it with consistent success–much, much earlier in the year.

MC: OK, so you’re starting in April. Then what? Can you walk us through the seasons?

CP: Sure. As I mentioned, it starts with ants and beetles; if I’m fishing terrestrials, I’m usually fishing those, at least until June or July. Ants stay more or less the same size–between size 16 and 20–but with beetles you can generally increase the size as the season progresses, from a 16 up to a size 12 by midsummer. There are a LOT of different beetle species out there and some can get pretty big.

Once you get into August and onward, hoppers and crickets start to become really important—not that you can’t use them earlier. But once August and September roll around, hoppers can really be fun.

MC: When fishing terrestrials are you generally “hatch-matching” or looking for a more general representation?

CP: I tend toward terrestrial patterns that are more general looking—patterns that could look like a lot of different things. I like foam flying ant patterns a lot because they can represent an ant, a small cricket, a beetle, even a dark caddis.

Of course, there are times when you will run into a true hatch-match type situation: flying ants, for example. If you happen to be on the water with ants, well, you’re very lucky. Certain meadow hopper fishing situations also call for something more exact. If I start to get refusals I’ll look a bit more closely at the hoppers along the bank. But a lot of the time general is the way I’ll go.

MC: How are you presenting these patterns?

CP: Low in the film. I can’t emphasize that enough. Certain hopper patterns float super high in the water—I don’t like them at all, except in seriously broken water. If you watch a real hopper in the water it’s a sad sight—they’re struggling and they’re partially sunk most of the time. Hoppers that sit low in the film just work a lot better for me. The same goes for ants and beetles.

Speaking of fishing low in the film, one thing not to shy away from is sunk terrestrial patterns—especially sunken ants. Fishing a larger hopper pattern with a sunken ant as a dropper can be very effective.

MC: Is there a particular mistake you see people making when fishing terrestrials?

CP: I think people need to be careful of fishing really large terrestrials in low water, which you have a lot of in late summer. A big splat out in slow, clear water often does more harm than good. In those situations something smaller, lighter and softer is generally going to catch you more fish—especially since most everyone else will be throwing big, splatting flies. If you take a good look at the hoppers along a bank, most of them are in the range of a size 12 to size 8. You don’t often see them much bigger than that.

I find myself downsizing more often than not, particularly on heavily pressured water. When everyone’s out throwing hoppers, “something different” usually means: lose the rubber legs, lose the flash, and downsize. The classic Letort hopper is a great late-summer, low-water pattern to use.

MC: A lot of people associate terrestrials—particularly hoppers—with big fish. Do you have a favorite big-fish terrestrial?

CP: I guess I’ve found that terrestrials don’t have to be big to take big fish. Maybe it goes along with that theory that trout develop a taste for them—the crunch and the flavor. But I’ve caught a lot of good fish on ants and beetles. Still, there’s no doubt that hoppers and crickets move big fish, too. Which is why I think a lot of people go in for that “big fly, big fish” theory.

MC:  So we’ve covered spring and summer. How deep into the year do you typically fish terrestrials?

CP:  Here in Wisconsin, that really depends on when we get a bunch of hard frosts. The end of September—when you have warm days and cold nights—can be great because the hoppers get really dopey. They try to fly, but their metabolism doesn’t allow them to be very good at it. They crash-land all over the place and the fish take quick notice. But, in a given year, I’ll normally fish hoppers and other terrestrials right to the bitter end of the Wisconsin season—the last day of September—if it’s not abnormally cold.

MC:  This last question is more of a request: surprise us with something we don’t know about terrestrials.

CP: Alright. You might be surprised to know that I start carrying ants and beetles in my fly box at the end of March. Yes, March. That’s because at that time of the year you’ll be spending a lot of time fishing midges, and sometimes you just cannot get the right fly. In those situations, when you have fish that are rising but just ignoring your imitation, ants and beetles can work surprisingly well as a “trick fly”. The same goes for later in the season when there are tiny bugs coming off—tricos, for instance. The trick fly can be the difference between beating your head against the wall and catching fish.